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Published on 1st December 2018

Brian Ritchie on ten years of Mona Foma: "It feels like it just started yesterday"


Tasmania's summer celebration of contemporary art and performance, Mona Foma, is marking its tenth year with a change of scenery. The festival's curator tells Maxim Boon why this new beginning has given him a case of deja vu.

It's fabled that Albert Einstein coined the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But for Mona Foma Artistic Director and Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, there's method in this madness. It’s a tactic that has served him remarkably well for a decade as he's curated Tasmania’s annual celebration of contemporary art and performance, Mona Foma. “The philosophy of the festival has always been that we’re open to everything,” he explains. “Even experimental art festivals are kind of genre-based because they’re only interested in work that is at one end of a particular spectrum. But at Mona Foma, we founded it on the principle of an ideal rather than an aesthetic. And that was that it should encompass as many different embodiments of creativity as possible.”

Ritchie holds the record for the longest unbroken tenure of any major arts festival director in Australia; “I guess I’m lucky that way,” he says, with his characteristically soft-spoken American twang. “To be honest, for me it still feels like it just started yesterday.” And indeed, this year’s festival will be a new beginning for Mona Foma. For the first time, the festival will decamp in its entirety from its former home at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art to a new location, some 200km northeast of Hobart, in Launceston. 2018’s festival tried on this new HQ for size with what Ritchie describes as a “sampler weekend.” But while establishing Mona Foma exclusively in Launceston will be a far greater endeavour, Ritchie is unphased by the challenge. As he notes, this is not his first rodeo.

“We built it in Hobart from nothing as well. Mona Foma originated three years before the museum opened. I met David and he was in the process of building MONA and had some concepts, but he was chomping at the bit to do something even before MONA was a thing. So we concocted the idea of Mona Foma, which actually ended up feeding into the development of the museum quite nicely," he says. “In some ways, the development of Mona Foma was a sketchpad for what happened in Hobart in the ten years that followed that first festival. So we have experience starting from nothing at ground zero. Actually, there’s a bit of deja vu for me, establishing Mona Foma in Launceston.”

In fact, the task at hand has a leg up on Mona Foma’s original genesis, Ritchie adds. “There’s a lot of more infrastructure than you might think. The hub last year was at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, which is perfect because it’s the old railway yards, so there’s plenty of space. We’ll have indoor galleries and two outdoor stages, plus the art school and the theatre school are there as well – the footprint is actually pretty much the same as what we were working with at MONA.”

And it’s not just the abundance of existing facilities at his disposal that has Ritchie confident of success in 2019. While there may be a change in scenery, the central guiding principle that year on year has guided Mona Foma from strength to strength will still be in full effect. “I’m interested in strong, individual perspectives. The reason we’ve never felt a need to follow trends or fads or whatever is because we're solely interested in people who have unique ideas, that are doing their own thing. And artists like that, if you know where to look, are never in short supply.”

First published 1 Dec 2018, for The Music.